Category Archives: random thoughts

Burnt branch blossoms

Ah, the sweet cherry blossoms are bursting forth!

You have to look closely in this photo, but the branch closest to the camera suffered in the great fire of 2017 that took out my mulberry tree and beekeeping shed. This cherry tree was growing next to the shed and, post-fire, had black limbs. I trimmed those off, and left that upright branch that seemed to be alive. They are blooming and leafing out, just more slowly than the rest of the tree–it’s about a week behind the non-fire scorched limbs. But why?

My theory is that the heat of the fire reset this limbs sense of chill hours. So most fruit trees like apples, cherries, pears, etc need exposure to cold temperatures–that is, they need to know that winter happened. A chill hour is an hour of temperatures below 45 degrees. So when you buy a fruit tree, you need to look at the tag and make sure your area has the same number of chill hours recommended on that tree’s tag. In the East Bay, we get between 600-800 chill hours, depending on where exactly you live. (If you live in California, you can look up your chill hours here.) There are varieties of apples that need, for example, 1000 chill hours in order to stimulate blooming and to set fruit, so it would be a poor fruit producer here, but in Minnesota, look out!

But what about my slow-to-bloom cherry limb? It got the same number of chilling hours as the other branches. I’m wondering if the idea that extra warm temperatures can cancel out some chill hours is at work. There is a different model that UC Davis uses, called the Dynamic Model, which uses something called Chill Portions instead of hours. Here’s what they say: “The model calculates chilling accumulation as ‘chill portions’ (CP), using a range of temperatures from ~35-55°F (some temperatures are more effective than others), and also accounts for chill cancellation by fluctuating warm temperatures.”

Maybe my conflagration was like a super warm temperature that reset the tree’s chill hours? Send any theories my way….

P.S. Note that my cherry tree is pruned in an open center pruning style. Not ideal for cherry trees–that’s more of a peach thing. According to Stella Otto’s the Backyard Orchardist, cherries should be on a modified central leader. I wish someone told me that 7 years ago!

 

 

Strong Roots(tock)

This month–according to my favorite x-cto knife wielding calendar maker, Nikki McClure–will be ASTOUNDING. So far, she has been right. All this rain has made everything seem possible again. I’m looking at new projects with a new hopefulness and light. Garden beds are fertile-seeming. And most astounding, is my mulberry tree, after being burnt down in a fire, is sending up new life.

Let me explain. On November 17, 2017, I awoke to a strange popping noise. I figured it was gunfire, a sometimes occurrence in our neighborhood. But then it went on and on. Then I thought it was someone popping some of that bubble wrap. Then the front door went, Whoosh! And I got up quickly. Whole garden engulfed in flames. Yup. It was bone dry in November, lots of dead leaves everywhere, maybe lit up by an errant cigarette? Anyway, I lost a beautiful shed that held all my beekeeping equipment, a car parked in the driveway, and worst of all…my mulberry tree.

I bought the tree from Daniel at Spiral Gardens probably 10 years ago. It had grown into a beautiful tree, sending out verdant shoots early in the spring, followed by hairy white flowers, followed by the most delicious, juicy blackberry-like fruit. Punk rockers down the street would stand outside the gates, where the tree peeked its branches over and feast on the fruit. Kids would climb the tree and get covered in purple juice, head to toe. It washed out. One kid even “painted” our car with her mulberry handprints. Now it was a smoldering stump.

I gave it up for dead. I bought another tree from Daniel. Planted it on the corner of 28th and MLK with the help of some glorious volunteers. The idea being, even more people will get to enjoy the mulberries, once it grows over the fence in the next 5 years or so. The scorched earth area, I decided to plant some pear trees that I could espalier against the fence. But then the other day I went outside and a wink of green stopped me dead in my tracks. Underneath the blackened remains of the mulberry tree was a new shoot of life, with the unmistakable shape of a mulberry leaf.

Remember that book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? The little boy takes everything from that apple tree–her apples, her branches, even her trunk. By the end of the book she’s only a stump, the boy is an old man, and now he can sit on her. But if that story kept going, I like to think, and this mulberry proves–the trunk isn’t dead. It can regrow into a tree. All we have to do is give it a little time. Astounding.

Announcing…A new blog

I’m going retro and restarting this blog! Maybe because spring is here, maybe because I gave up my smart phone, maybe because I’m getting middle-aged and am nostalgic for the blog days, maybe it’s because my child is in kindergarten now…whatever it is, I’m back, and I’m blogging.

Unlike Ghosttown Farm blog, this one is going to focus on fruit trees, urban orchards, and what fruit trees mean to my life, to Oakland, CA, to people all around the world. Urban orchards are a connection to the past, a place to gather, a place to commemorate the dead. Fruit trees span the generations. Fruit trees make us think about our own short lives. There will be interviews with folks starting urban orchards or tending existing orchards. Travel profiles of urban orchards I encounter, or rural fruit orchards that can inform even the small-time grower. Book reviews, tool reviews. Recipes. Orcharding tips. Oh yeah.

I’m just learning about fruit trees and what people are up to in terms of fruit trees in urban areas. Please do send me links and info about your favorite urban orchard projects, fruit tree books, and resources.pomagranates

Ding dong my blog is dead

Hello everyone! I’ve moved my site to http://www.novellacarpenter.net
The new website has info about my books and events–there’s one in Fairfax this Sunday 4/30! Check it out…
Just can’t keep up with a blog anymore–sorry!

Day of the Dead

The old corn stalks are waving in my garden. The beans are pretty much kaput. The chickens are barely laying any eggs. Must be the end of the season.
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Frannie and I got out the sugar skull molds and made this altar together. As the nights grow so dang dark–and long! it is the perfect time to think about death and decay. My students at USF last week celebrated this time of year by making some amazing salsa–they roasted peppers and tomatoes on the comal, then blended in some garlic and onion, cilantro and salt and lime. I cooked the last of my corn and some black beans; we also had quesadillas with epazote and oaxacan cheese. A faculty-member in the English department–Tracy Seeley–died this year, and a few months before, a group spread some of her ashes in the garden. They spread them near the kale plants, and I remember being a bit jolted by seeing them. “There’s Tracy,” I said to my students. That’s all there is left, I thought, and felt a wave of sadness, even though I didn’t know her. I guess she was a total bad-ass, funny lady, who loved to garden in the USF garden before she got sick. We are going to plant a weeping Santa Rosa plum tree in her honor this January.
For the rest of class, we made a big compost pile out of the food scraps left over from our meal, from fallen leaves, from the green corn stalks, from the weeds, from the straw. That pile should heat up–to provide warmth and life for millions of bacteria who will break it all down. We named our compost pile Sebastian. My students are all so young, college kids, so death might feel so far away. I used to feel like that–immortal. But now, and every year, it edges closer to me. I think I would want at least some of my ashes spread in the USF garden, in my own garden, in my mom’s garden, in my sister’s garden, too. People will see the gray and the white bits and might wonder, like I did, is that a new kinda fertilizer? The answer is yes. And then that’s all there is. But for now, while we are here, let’s laugh. And garden.
Tell me what you are doing with all your tomatoes! I have a big bucket of them. What should I make during these dark nights?

Power to the Peachful

Ok, so I’ve struggled growing good peaches in Oakland. I had a Muir and one with a number from some field station. After three years, I got only 5 peaches. And the taste? Meh. A little bitter. A little mealy. Not the ecstasy that a peach should stir up. So I yanked the peach tree (I’m a bruiser), and sent it up to Chico, with a friend there, who might get better peaches in a hotter climate. But I did feel a certain…lack. Peaches, peaches, peaches–they are my favorite summer fruit. And so, I turned to adoption.

Yes, you can adopt a peach tree. I had read David Mas Masumoto’s book, Epitaph for a Peach, about his struggles as a family farmer trying to grow heirloom fruit that isn’t exactly “shippable”. And I was delighted to find out he and his family offer peach tree adoption. Now, if I’m going to adopt a tree, Masumoto’s is the place where I’d like to make that happen. It’s a solution for a problem they have as small-scale growers–we give them money up front for the chance to pick the fruit of a one of their trees.

The process required coming up with a name for our group–my buddy Zach came up with Power to the Peachful, and telling the family what we would do with the fruit. Our list included salsa, ice cream, peach liquor, canned peaches with rum. This all went down around March. The picking would happen in late July/early August.

Now I’m a bit of a literalist. I thought I would be sent images of baby fuzzy peaches, and given gushing reports about my tree’s health (I also thought the money I sent to Heifer went straight to that goat for a family, but that’s another story). In reality, I found out we would be adopting a tree, and then I promptly forgot. Then July hit, and we got word that picking would happen July 18 and July 25.

The farm is outside Fresno, picking started after orientation, one at 7:30am, another at 8:30. Our posse decided to camp outside of Fresno the night before. (Kelly’s Resort, check it out next time you are on the 99). The Masumoto’s had told us to be early because it’s hot in the Central Valley, and that we would be given boxes and brunch. Yay!

We drove in two separate cars because we needed a car to take home all our fruits. We were on our way to the farm at 7am. Our pals were driving behind us, following us to the farm, when we suddenly heard a giant explosion. I looked back and saw our friend’s car moving in a weird way, and the stuff we had just touched–a coffee pot, a lantern–shattered onto the busy street, and then cars ran over them, making a huge racket. Somehow their car was up on the median. I jumped out of our car and ran toward our friend’s car. The car was totaled. Mangled. And it was one of those heavy metal cars that don’t injure easily. The semi-truck that hit them was up the road a bit. I said the thing everyone says in this situation, even though it is moronic: Are you ok? They nodded and got out of their car. At that moment, seeing my friends alive in all that twisted metal was the best thing that had ever happened to me. We got them out of the car and onto the sidewalk. Strangers stopped to give them water. The cops came. Ambulance and firemen. I went to the car and got everything out of it. We would never see this car again, I thought. It would stay in Fresno. I got my friends purse, eyeglasses. Cowboy coffee had spilled everywhere in the car. I got all the cassette tapes out of the glovebox and popped the tape out of the radio. I worked methodically, it calmed my nerves, which were screaming: they almost died!! They are ok! They almost died! they are ok! Picking up the wreckage made me feel like I could at least do something while they gave the policemen their report. “You should buy a lottery ticket,” the cop said, “because you should be dead. Today you are very lucky.”

And I’ll admit it, my brain also thought, besides worrying about my friends: all those peaches. We would go home. We had to just go home and not pick peaches. But after the car was towed away, and we packed all their salvagable stuff into our car, my friend looked at his watch: “We can make the 8:30 orientation! Let’s go!” And so we did. And the farm was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, not because it was actually physically beautiful (it’s neat and the trees are lovely, and they are peach trees full of fruit but it’s pretty flat and non-descript) but because we were alive, goddamit and we were there to pick the peaches. The Masumoto’s were also the most beautiful family I had ever seen–so giving, so kind and concerned about our friends and our group.

And so we picked. It turned out we had twins. The peaches were Elberta’s. Heavy and yellow. Dense. Golden. We got to climb orchard ladders and get every last fruit off those trees. We picked 16 boxes. A kindly man told us he would take our peaches to Berkeley, where he lived, and we could pick them up later.

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We ate a delicious meal in the orchard. We were alive, laughing and talking. Then all the groups who had assembled there were told that the Masumotos were throwing in an Le Grand nectarine tree into our adoptive families. So we picked another dozen boxes of nectarines. They tasted like mangoes and sunlight.

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Another truck said they’d drop the nectarines at my place in Oakland. We were blessed. There are only a few times in life when such grace can happen, when you feel like yes, you are special and lucky, and that was what that day felt like.

Now, back at home, I’ve just started the fruit processing odyssey. So far, I’ve made nectarines in syrup, nectarine and mulberry jam, peach ice cream, peach pie, and dehydrated peaches. As I slice the peaches, I think of my friends, who are bruised but happy, and I think they are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. When I asked them, “why did we go pick peaches after that accident?” They explained, “We didn’t drive down to Fresno to get in a car accident and go home; we drove to Fresno to pick peaches.” And ain’t that what life is all about?

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Speaking of amazing people, there’s a movie about the Masumoto family! It’s showing at SPUR this Wednesday, August 5th. I’m told it’s sold out–so let’s ask SPUR to have another screening!!

Hope the rest of your summer is peachy: next up is an blogpost about my field trips of the hacked version of Early Girl tomatoes, called Dirty Girls. I’m going to do a side-by-side taste test.

Why I Am Growing a Garden This Season

The drought. We are all trying to save water. I haven’t bathed in weeks. I barely flush the toilet. But dammit, I am growing a garden this year. Why?

Because I’m part of a farm tour.

Just joking.

I’m growing my own vegetables this year this year precisely because there is a drought. 80% of a California’s water is used for big agricultural operations. Almonds. Grapes. Oranges. Rice. All water hogs–and much of the harvest is sold overseas. By planting a diverse garden that will feed local people, I am saying: this is the scale that is sustainable.

Small farms care about tending their soil, building their soil. One of the biggest benefits of healthy soil is less run-off during irrigation. In Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary, Symphony of the Soil, scientists at the Rodale Institute showed that conventional agricultural-use soil doesn’t retain water, it just runs off, causing erosion and making the soil saline. But in organic or deeply mulched soils, that water is held in the soil, to be better accessed by the plants’ roots.

A small urban farm can also draw upon local resources in order to water–eg the washing machine. It’s legal to use washing machine water in your garden if these 12 guidelines are followed. You don’t need a permit. We use a special laundry soap (Oasis) so we can water our fruit trees with washing machine water. Our household of six people does about 3 loads a week, meaning 120/gallons a week go toward watering our 29 fruit trees.

There’s also a method called dry farming–basically torturing your poor tomatoes, squash and potatoes by withholding water. But as a salty old French grape farmer told me once, “We make our grapes suffer, and they taste better for it.” Same principle with your veg: mulch and add compost to your veggies, water the plant until it sets fruit, then stop watering completely. You’ll get a smaller yield, but better tasting produce. Note that this will only work if the plant can reach way down into the deep soil–it doesn’t work for container gardening.

Ok, that’s my spiel–what are you doing to save water, and garden at the same time?

P.S. This Sunday, May 31, I’m on a panel for Oakland first Book Festival!! 1:30 at Laurel Books in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Come on by, I’ll be giving away some plant starts.